In my previous post about Social Media Transparency, I differentiated between transparency and authenticity. This week, I’m delving deeper into social media authenticity and exploring a very controversial SEO practice: Astroturfing.
For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, Oxford Dictionaries defines it as:
“the deceptive practice of presenting an orchestrated marketing or public relations campaign in the guise of unsolicited comments from members of the public”
While exploring the topic, I found and submitted a great article to Digg called “Inauthenticity – Social Media’s Dirty Little Secret” by Sam Fiorella. He discusses the idea of inauthenticity as it applies to products and services reviews. Although there are consumers who actually contribute to common review websites like Yelp! and TripAdvisor, there are many sneaky “cyber shills who are paid to manually inflate positive reviews and ratings.” Shills are people who pretend to be enthusiastic customers in an effort to entice or influence other people’s buying habits and opinions.
Marketers often regard inauthenticity as something that can and should be avoided in order to maintain a good brand reputation. However, astroturfing is actually quite a popular strategy that has created a big industry both locally and overseas. Studies have emerged to support the idea that astroturfing is positively affecting brand perceptions and purchase decisions.
One danger Sam warns about is that increasing public awareness of astroturfing tactics will create more cynical and skeptical consumers. In the future, they may not rely on review websites and comments for fear that they may be “planted” and not authentic. After that happens, marketers will have to find a way to get the customer’s personal and trusted networks’ support because that’s where they’ll go to seek advice. Google Search Plus Your World takes a step in that direction by prioritizing content that has been created, shared, or promoted by a person’s personal social graph in the search results.
Strangely enough, there’s a high level of tolerance among marketers for this somewhat shady SEO tactic. Inauthenticity is sometimes the key to success, as Sam points out: “a small business can appear as big as it wants to portray itself through technology and design.” There are even job seeking advertisements that publicize the fact that marketers are looking for false reviewers… how much more obvious does it get? Perhaps that is a good indication that public awareness of astroturfing may not be as damaging as you might have imagined. Consider the following chart:
Only 8% of respondents would definitely stop purchasing from a brand they found out was planting reviews. Therefore, it might be worth investing some time in astroturfing to manage your brand’s reputation and boost consumer perceptions of your products and services. It shouldn’t be your first and only SEO tactic, but it is possible that it can benefit you in the end.
Do you think astroturfing is a good or bad practice? Have you ever used or considered using a cyber shill? What would you think of a brand if you found out they had been planting product and service reviews on the Internet or paying someone else to do so? Please leave your comments and share your thoughts.